Letter to the Editor: Delaware’s DART dilemma

First, let me say this letter is not intended to eliminate the “White Elephant” Delaware DART Bus System as I am sure there are a small number of people who benefit from using it. Rather, it is to get those in power to take a good, hard look at a very costly program which benefits very few at great taxpayer’s expense and to take corrective, cost-saving measures saving significant money.

I am sure many of you have watched as these Greyhound-size buses zip up and down the highway or around towns with no or just a few passengers. Programs are begun with good intentions, I feel, however, when a program becomes a “white elephant,” it is time for it to be reviewed.

Over the past several months, I have been keeping a log with the number of passengers on them. Having stopped logging at 1,000 buses, my results show six buses had three passengers, 63 had two passengers, and 442 had one passenger. The remaining 489 buses were empty. These large buses are capable of carrying 40 to 45 passengers.

A few years ago, I was outside DelDOT awaiting their 8 a.m. opening. A DART bus pulled up, and the driver got out. We began conversing, and I asked him what route he was operating. It was the morning “rush hour” Wilmington to Dover route. Since nobody had arrived on the bus, I queried what the normal load was on a rush-hour morning. He said he seldom, if ever, had more than two or three passengers, and quite often was empty.

Being a longtime resident of Delaware, a taxpayer, and realizing the state of Delaware is sinking into a huge debt position with, information from a Google search, a debt of $5.3 billion, and this does not include unfunded pension benefits and unfunded health care benefits which pushes the known debt to $9.2 billion, the time is now to begin improving a broken operation.

The established procedure when a state is in debt seems to always be to raise taxes to cover the shortfalls. That is the wrong approach. Our elected servants should first look at programs which are failing the citizens and taxpayers, and DART is a major one.

A Google search shows a large diesel bus gets six to eight miles per gallon tops. Diesel fuel is more expensive than gasoline, so that is another costly waste. Insurance is undoubtedly more expensive on large buses. Anyone evaluating this program would quickly deduce it is not practical to continue using large buses to go up and down the roads of Delaware carrying two or three people and half the time zero passengers. A better program would be to use 15 passenger vans. A new Ford 15-passenger van costs a tad over $42,000 and gets 14 mpg in town and 19 on the highway. A new bus can cost anywhere from $300,000 to over $700,000. Which seems to be the better option?

So, what have I done to shed light on this costly, inefficient program? After sending letters to the Governor and the Director of Motor Vehicles, I was referred to the CEO of the Delaware Transit Corporation, Mr. John Sisson, for answers through a Freedom of Information Act request to the six questions I asked.

1. Total budget of the DART program for each of the past five years.

2. Deficit this program has had for each of the past five years.

3. Average load factor of the buses.

4. Cost of the insurance per year.

5. Number of buses in the program.

6. Number of employees in the DART program.

The CEO responded very quickly to my request with a nice letter basically justifying the status-quo stating he was “obligated to consider other factors that could drive the cost absorbed by the average transit-dependent person astronomically, through the roof, if public transportation services were privatized.” The intent of my letter was not advocating to eliminate public transportation services but rather the intent was to challenge the status quo which is in no way a cost-effective and efficient operation.

No reasonable person would conclude that an operation, as shown by the figures he provided, for FY17 with a budget of $118,279,778 million could incur a deficit of $91,457,882, with the yearly loss over the past five years averaging about $91,000,000 per year. How can anyone justify an operation which, according to the numbers I received, lost $449,755,226 million and not begin looking for alternative methods to run the operation more efficiently?

Then, the abysmally low load factor — percentage of the available seats being filled — show an even less efficient operation: New Castle County 13.3 percent; Kent County 8 percent; and Sussex County 7.6 percent. We are talking about three or four people, in Kent and Sussex and five or six people in New Castle on a bus capable of 44 to the really large buses of 54 or so.

My visual log over nearly the past 12 months clearly shows most buses were empty, and I have never seen four people on any bus in that time. I realize and concur with the CEO’s comment about the importance of public transportation; however, to continue doing it with large, costly buses running empty or nearly empty which get very low mileage — 5-7 mpg — is neither cost-effective nor efficient.

The CEO mentioned in his letter to me Delaware had received two federal grants to purchase electric buses. A Google search has them priced around $700,000 each. Where is the savings with these purchases? They will still be riding around nearly empty. Buy smaller vehicles with those funds!

Consideration should be given to much smaller vehicles, less frequent route runs, and increasing the fare rates. Surely there is a more cost-effective and efficient way to do this operation.

Phil White, Lt. Col (Ret.), USAF

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